It’s Tuesday in Lindau and a morning session on renewable energy has just finished. The panel, which featured some serious heavyweights, looked at the role of chemistry in developing renewable energies.
Two challenges exist in deploying renewable technologies on a large scale, said the panelists. Namely, these are storage and transport of energy. “ We cannot create energy. We can only transform the energy coming to earth from the sun. So it’s just a question of how we can transform and store this energy”, said Gerhard Ertl, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Robert Grubbs of Caltech, the only organic chemist cum-laureate on the panel, said that materials scientists could play a critical role in solving these problems, such as by designing lightweight, large blades for wind turbines.
There is a huge amount of solar energy available and a smaller amount of wind energy available, said theoretical physicist Walter Kohn, who received the 1998 Prize for his contributions to the understandings of the electronic properties of materials. Kohn said that the challenge is turning this vast amount of energy into something usable.
But that something will also have to be safe, suggested Kohn, who expressed particular concern about replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power. “I’m old enough to have witnessed the affect of nuclear bombs, and I’m a young enough that I can still read the newspapers”, he said, referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea. “If this became a major source of replacing fossil fuel, the number of power plants needed would create…a huge probability of leading to a catastrophe”, said Kohn, who worries that “there will a tremendous pressure to go for nuclear” none-the-less.
Laureate Harold Kroto agreed that the pressure to use nuclear energy will be “irresistible” and raised the issue of whether scientists need a new Manhattan project to develop new technologies. Kroto argued that blues skies research will be perhaps more valuable than applied research here, because often the accidental leads to new discoveries.
“Do we need some kind of new chemistry”?, asked Kroto. In developing new technologies “we have a responsibility to society that our discoveries should not be misused”, he added. “This is a worry that many of us have”.